Thursday, October 08, 2009

A timely lesson for health care reform: subsidiariy and solidarity

Subsidiarity, a concept better known in Europe than in America, has become a specialized import for use in the U.S. health care controversy. “By some accounts, it is a magic word that transforms Catholic social teachings into anti-government libertarianism,” writes Stephen Schneck, a professor of political science at The Catholic University of America and director of its Life Cycle Institute.

That’s an error, Schneck says in his October 6 posting on the “Catholics in Alliance for the Common Good” blog. In a short course titled “Subsidiarity 101: A Lesson for the Health Care Debate,” he calls subsidiarity “that hallmark idea of Catholic social teaching: the preferential option for the poor.”

Schneck traces subsidiarity’s usage in the 19th and early 20th centuries, starting with the ideas of Bishop Wilhelm Emmanuel von Ketteler of Mainz, Germany. Ketteler “developed an understanding of subsidiarity as part of a Catholic ‘third way’ in political economy between dehumanizing extremes of socialism and capitalism.“

Then Pope Leo XIII, in Rerum Novarum, “elaborated von Kettler’s third way balance of government and private initiative. Policies should be pursued at the level or mix most effective for the common good.”

Benedict XVI has offered the most recent Papal formulation of subsidiarity. As Schneck explains:

“Caritas in Veritate (2009) emphasizes the duty of governments to provide for the social welfare of citizens when non-governmental means do not rise to the level of needs. (no 35) But, even more interestingly, this newest encyclical suggests that subsidiarity alone is insufficient to achieve the harmonious balance in the social order that Catholic social teaching demands. Subsidiarity, His Holiness claims, must be balanced by practices of solidarity a term which he links closely with the obligations of government." Quoting Benedict directly:

"The principle of subsidiarity must remain closely linked to the principle of solidarity and vice versa, since the former without the latter gives way to social privatism, while the latter without the former gives way to paternalist social assistance that is demeaning to those in need. (no. 58)"
Schneck concludes with this analysis of subsidiarity and health care:
“In truth, nothing in Catholic social teachings, including the idea of subsidiarity, requires that America’s health care crisis be addressed with a particular policy approach, whether by state, private enterprise, voluntary associations, or anything else. The Church has been quite happy with state-run plans—and the Vatican's own plan is quite similar to what one finds in Italy or other European countries. But, if a private or semi-private system worked to provide successful comprehensive coverage of all in society, then it would also satisfy the concerns of the social teachings. Of course, that's the rub.

“Tragically, the crisis of health care in America is testament to the failure of private sphere mechanisms to address such social needs. And, that failure surely invokes John Paul II’s argument that government must step up when critical social needs go unmet. Forty-five to fifty million Americans are now without adequate health care coverage, nearly one-third of those are children. This is what is behind the American bishops' longstanding insistence that as a society we are faced with a moral imperative regarding health care. Democrat, Republican, libertarian, or whatever, our Church reminds us Catholics that we cannot dodge that imperative.”

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